Breaking the Stigmas of a Community College Education

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The Indonesian student community of Green River College celebrating Batik Day 2017. (photo courtesy of Green River College International Programs)

To most people, the idea of attending a community college might not seem appealing. Most community college students are labeled as “not smart enough,” and the appearance of community colleges in popular culture, such as the TV show Community doesn’t help either. In this article, Patricia shares her experience of attending a community college in Washington state and attempts to tackle the stigma surrounding them.

I stumbled upon the idea of community college when I was at my high school education fair, and I talked to one of the representatives there to learn more about it. Basically, there are two paths in my American educational journey: spend all my four years of university in a 4-year institution, or spend my first two years in community college, then transfer to a 4-year institution—both will lead me to the same degree but with differences in opportunities. Community college sounds like a good idea, and I get to save money because it is way cheaper than a 4-year university for my first two years. My plan is set.

However, I was completely blind about the stigma that is associated with community colleges. When I announced that decision, some of my friends were upset. “That’s such a waste! You’re smart enough to go directly to a 4-year university!” “You know that you cannot get into a good university when you transfer later, right?” However, after two years in community college, I learned that the stigma surrounding it are just myths; although community college is vastly different from a four-year university, it still offers a one-of-a-kind college experience.

Stigma #1: A suburban community college doesn’t allow you to be in touch with city life.

When I first arrived in the United States, I felt like my college experience won’t be like the one portrayed in movies. With the lack of dorms—save for the limited Campus Corner Apartments across the street—and the large amount of commuter/part-time students, I didn’t experience any of the frat parties portrayed in American films. I myself am not a fan of parties, and I find the solitude pretty comfortable. Green River College is located in Auburn, Washington, a suburban area 35 miles from Seattle. Since I have a great tendency of fear of missing out (FOMO), I was a bit disappointed because I wanted to stay up to date with what’s happening in the big city. However, when there is a will, there is a way; I braved myself into the complicated bus routes to the hip areas of Seattle until I found a friend who has the same interests as me, and most importantly, has a car they can drive. Eventually, I learned that this detachment towards the city life is actually very effective. It allows me to be focused towards my studies, yet at the same time, taste the vivacity of the city once in a while.

The Indonesian student community of Green River College celebrating Batik Day 2017. (photo courtesy of Green River College International Programs)
The Indonesian student community of Green River College celebrating Batik Day 2017. (photo courtesy of Green River College International Programs)

Stigma #2: The open admissions policy of a community college and its less qualified instructors make community college education less valuable.

Most people would relate the admissions rate of a university to its rigor; the more competitive the admission rates, the higher the quality of education. Adopting that way of thinking, one might think that a community college’s 100% admission rate makes it have the lowest quality of education. However, lots of studies have proven that this mindset does not ring true anymore, which is supported by my experiences in community college.

I took an Intro to Theatre class in my first quarter, where I had to read two plays about two very different, very American concepts: Jim Crow laws and the AIDS epidemic. I became more understanding about American culture and I can compare and contrast these concepts to my own culture. The classes I took in college continued to enrich my mind, including an Intro to Novels class where I learned about Native American writers, and an Engineering Physics series with a Discrete Mathematics class where I explored the intersections between physics, mathematics, and computer science.

This doesn’t stop in academics. In community college I took two jobs: being a writing tutor and a first-year international student mentor. My employers are deeply passionate about their work and I am able to achieve insights about both mentoring and tutoring. These two jobs taught me about teamwork, understanding, and patience, in a way that is different from other jobs that I have ever done in my life.

Looking through a pair of diffraction glasses as we learned about light and wave properties in an upper division physics class in Green River College.
Looking through a pair of diffraction glasses as we learned about light and wave properties in an upper division physics class in Green River College.

Stigma #3: The student body and student life in community college do not challenge you, as they are labeled “dropouts” and “failures”.

I would say that the open admissions policy in a community college is not a disadvantage; it is an advantage because you get to meet people from all walks of life. When I arrived on campus, I went through an international student orientation program, where I met international students from all over the world. I made friends with people from countries such as Kazakhstan and Nepal, which I didn’t expect that I would be in touch with people from those countries in my life! I learned a lot by talking to these international students and I compared and contrasted my culture with their culture. This led me to create an international-domestic conversation group on campus, where I learned more about the intersections of our cultures. Through this conversation group and through being involved in various diversity clubs, I met a variety of people—including immigrants, single mothers, first-generation students—and I get to hear their stories. I have never been exposed to perspectives as varied as from the people I met in community college.

Luckily, I get to help amplify these stories through my job as a writing tutor. I met a lot of people from all walks of life in the tutoring center, asking for help in telling their stories in an academic setting. I feel privileged to read these stories because some of their essays comprised of stories that are integral to themselves. I read stories about broken families, immigrant struggles, returning to college as an adult, and other circumstances that I won’t be exposed to if I didn’t go to community college. From my job, I truly felt that the open admissions policy brings advantage to marginalized students and even privileged students like myself. I’m glad to be able to give feedback to their writing to make their stories presented well to their instructors.

Working with international student leaders as Social Media Ambassadors; we promote our college's programs to prospective freshmen. (photo courtesy of Green River College International Programs)
Working with international student leaders as Social Media Ambassadors; we promote our college’s programs to prospective freshmen. (photo courtesy of Green River College International Programs)
Taking a picture break on a training day for new first-year international student mentors.
Taking a picture break on a training day for new first-year international student mentors.

In conclusion, being in community college gave me a broader view of the world and about the people around me. I have finished that part of my life and I am on my way to go to a four-year university. I looked back to my time in community college and how it completely breaks the stereotypical snarks and comments made by the people around me. Honestly, I wouldn’t trade these two years for anything else.

Photos provided by the author unless otherwise stated.

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Patricia Kusumaningtyas
Patricia Kusumaningtyas is a computer science student currently studying at Columbia University's Columbia College in New York City, after transferring from Green River College in Auburn, Washington. She is also interested in writing and linguistics, which prompted her interest in natural language processing in artificial intelligence. When she's not solving problem sets, constructing data structures, or analyzing The Iliad, you can find her enjoying obscure movies or conquering pop culture trivia. You can contact her through her email address at patricia.adiyoso@gmail.com.